President Hotel plan met with confusion, complaints in Jerusalem

It’s rare for a real estate developer to demonstrate so much consideration for the community in whose neighborhood he is investing. But despite this, people are still concerned.

 THE OLD President Hotel site on Ahad Ha’am St., seen 2020. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE OLD President Hotel site on Ahad Ha’am St., seen 2020.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The history of the President Hotel in the Talbiyeh neighborhood in some respects resembles the story of the boy who cried wolf. 

Over the years, the abandoned building has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles in which plans for its future were published, but none eventuated.

The President, frequented in its heyday by politicians, diplomats, and other dignitaries, was built in 1954 by Haim Shiff, one of the pioneers of Israel’s tourist industry. 

Shiff owned several hotels and after he went bankrupt in the 1980s, the President was acquired by Africa Israel Investments, headed by diamond tycoon Lev Leviev.

In the 1990s, the hotel was briefly used as an immigrant absorption center for people from the former Soviet Union. Afterward, it became a haven for the homeless drug addicts and alcoholics who broke in and vandalized it. 

The site of the former President Hotel on Ahad Ha’am Street. In a comic twist, the derelict sign now reads ‘Resident Ho.’ (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)
The site of the former President Hotel on Ahad Ha’am Street. In a comic twist, the derelict sign now reads ‘Resident Ho.’ (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

In 2011, a group of artists known as Bayit Reik (“empty building”) infiltrated the premises, renovated part of the area, and turned it into a kind of studio gallery. But this enterprise was short-lived.

In 2014, after years of wrangling, Africa Israel reached a compromise agreement with the municipality. Leviev did not want to build another hotel on the site. Because the land behind the building reached all the way to Sokolov Street, he envisaged a large residential complex – but the municipality was insistent on a hotel. In the final analysis, they agreed on a mixed-use residential and hotel project, but the plan was never implemented.

In 2017, Africa Israel Hotels, with the exception of the President Hotel, was sold to the Dayan family. The President was purchased by businessman and philanthropist Nachum Rosenberg who, from the very outset, stated that he wanted to cooperate with the local community and to learn of its needs and its concerns.

He and his team have met with people in the neighborhood on various occasions. As proof of his good intentions, Rosenberg restored the first two floors of the building for use as a social space until such time as construction begins on a new hotel and residential complex, in accordance with municipal demands.

Close to 100 people, ranging from haredi to ultra-secular, attended a meeting last week at which members of Rosenberg’s team showed indistinct presentations of proposed changes in the area.

It’s not just the building project which is a cause of concern.

The construction projects in Jerusalem and the worries of its residents

The construction of a light rail system on Keren Hayesod St., coupled with Rosenberg’s plans, will completely change the character of the neighborhood, warned architect, urban planner, and social entrepreneur Elias Messinas, who has been working with the Ginot Ha’Ir Community Council since 2017.

Currently, there are hardly any commercial enterprises located directly on Keren Hayesod, but that may change once the light rail is in place. But the greater concern among those attending the meeting was traffic and garbage collection.

As it is, Ahad Ha’am Street is too narrow for all the traffic that passes through it, and it certainly cannot cope with the heavy traffic including tour buses that would be generated by the hotel and the new residences. Owners of all the new apartments that will be part of the project will have at least one car per unit. The plans call for an underground car park, but what will happen when car owners want to drive out into the street?

How will this affect children playing in Sokolov Park? To what extent will the construction site encroach on the park? Will the roads surrounding the project be widened? And if so, will this make sidewalks even narrower than they are already? And worse still, will the widening of roads result in the appropriation of private land for the so-called common good?

The height of the residential project was yet another cause for concern. On average, the buildings on Ahad Ha’am, Sokolov, and Keren Hayesod streets are four to six floors high. The resident population does not want to see tall towers such as those which have changed the skyline in other parts of the city.

According to what was shown in the presentation, the apartments will be graded to ensure that the overall height is in sync with the general skyline. In addition, there will be lots of greenery at the entrance to each block, as well as roof gardens.

At present, the plan calls for a height of six and a half floors; but depending on when it gets underway, this could increase to 10.

The currently quiet street, despite the traffic, will be much more crowded, less private, and less inviting.

A member of Rosenberg’s team explained that within the next 30 years, Jerusalem’s population will double, and residential buildings will continue to be proportionately taller. For all that, she said, every effort is being made to preserve the unique character of Talbiyeh, and the new design has taken the environment, society, and economics into account.

One of the guidelines, she added, was a quote by Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The project will include social space – although exactly how much was not divulged. It was stated, however, that the residential buildings will be both public and private, with public activities taking place on the ground floor.

One the points made by residents was this: If Rosenberg wants to have his project aligned with Sokolov Park, he needs the consent of all the residents. And showing plans of the residential part of the project is not good enough; residents want to see what the whole street will look like once the project is completed.

No one living in the area actually knows what the total area of the project encompasses. Nor was there a satisfactory answer to the question of the time factor involved in construction from start to finish. The noise of drills and hammers from early morning until evening will be unbearable and could continue for a couple of years.

There was also a demand for a clear definition of what will be public and what will be private in the residential sector. One person suggested that all the questions and objections be collated and presented in writing to Rosenberg so that he could examine them in an atmosphere of less tension. Rosenberg, for his part, said that nothing was finalized.

“We came here because we want to involve the public,” he declared. “We invited you to come. Some people like the project; some people don’t. We came to hear your opinions. We still don’t have a final plan. We know you’re worried about parking and buses. We’ll do all that is necessary to cooperate with you.”|

It’s rare for a real estate developer to demonstrate so much consideration for the community in whose neighborhood he is investing. Rosenberg came with the best of intentions, and a testament to his goodwill is what he has already done with the existing structure.

But there are always cynics who don’t believe what they hear – and the neighborhood is not lacking in such people – alongside those who are taking Rosenberg at face value. ❖